There’s a new term on the go and ‘lean farming’ is what it’s all about, according to the new benchmarking project, 4Sight Farming.

Its first meeting was hosted recently by Hay Farms, at Easter Rhynd, near Perth, and was attended by 30 arable and mixed farmers from across Scotland. The farm visit looked at the principles of lean farming as a means of improving profit margins with emphasis on small, incremental rather than wholesale changes.

Being ‘lean’ requires a long-term business approach based on continually assessing and making improvements, on any scale, to processes to reduce unnecessary cost in time or money. The visit explored allocating fixed costs more efficiently such as machinery sharing, getting the best from your workforce, digital record-keeping and the importance of business plans and KPIs.

4Sight Farming, which is a knowledge transfer-funded initiative, is working with a core group of combinable crop and potato growers in Scotland gathering data on fixed costs alongside variable costs from their operations. When the data from the project is analysed, it will be used to identify where lean practices could be applied to machinery use and labour allocation to make businesses more efficient and profitable.

Host farmer, Fin Hay, explained how such analysis helped his family’s arable operation, which covers 8400 acres across Perthshire on a mix of owned, rented and contract-farmed land.

“We had a massive change in our approach to machinery when we took potatoes out of the business. We focused specifically on what we needed for the cereals, which was big tractors with big implements and this has reduced our per hectare costs overall,” he said.

“One of the biggest decisions was to change from tractors and trailers to lorries. We are working between farms, not all close by and there’s a motorway in between. Tractors and trailers can’t go on the motorway, they move slowly through the town and they can’t carry as much produce.

“Although they are expensive headline figures, we can run four lorries at lower cost than the 12 tractors and trailers we would need for the same job.

“Our biggest financial benefit, however, has been installing section control on our sprayers and grain drill. It automatically shuts off and has saved us 6% every year. It paid for itself in year one and has continued to make savings for us year on year.”

Aberdeenshire mixed farmer, Andrew Booth, of Savock Farms, who also spoke at the event, was one of the first arable monitor farms in Scotland to undertake a structured lean review of the business. Echoing advice shared by Mr Hay, his key recommendation was to gain the buy-in of farm staff for the best outcome.

“We got the buy-in from our staff by speaking and sharing more than we’ve ever shared before. It’s about working as a team to improve the bottom line,” he said.

“Whether it’s a spillage, not documenting work in a field or changing a machine for the sake of it, these are all aspects of waste and opportunities for being lean. Profit shouldn’t be a dirty word. If we benefit, they benefit and it’s also not just all about money but it can be about a better work/life balance and wherever you are in the business, we all want that.

“Two of my team came to me with a better, digital way to complete time sheets and this saved time and effort for all of us. They can see where they make a difference.”

Peter Chapman, an arable, beef and renewables farmer from Aberdeenshire, has been looking at his business differently since becoming involved in the project. He said: “I bought into the idea of becoming more efficient with machinery costs. We all know that things will be getting a bit tougher and a bit tighter in the future and the lean management process formalises it and it’s been good to hear from experts and those who have done it and see how we can introduce it into our own businesses.”

The data accumulated from the 4Sight Farming project will be analysed by EQ Accountants, who specialise in agricultural services, with the results from six of the farmers receiving a more in-depth review in conjunction with an online system. The combined data will be used to provide a range of cost comparisons across operations and crops to form the basis for discussion and learnings for the group facilitated by Eric Anderson, of Scottish Agronomy and co-op experts, SAOS.

The next farm demonstration will be on July 17 with a visit to an exemplar lean business.